The History of Herbs

Herbs have been used for thousands of years. They have been added to dishes used as perfumes, remedies and even as currency.

collection of herbs and oils near mortar and pestle - history of herbs

Today herbs are most commonly used to add a zing to dishes but the traditional uses are still valid.

How do We Know so Much about Herbs in History?

From Ancient times to the modern day herbs have been written about by people from all over the world. In writing about what they have learnt they have been able to transfer their knowledge to us. We have learned about herbs from the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese and Indians, and the Sumerians from Mesopotamia (now called Iraq).

Throughout Europe in the Middle Ages monks used herbs as medicines. The Pilgrims took herbs to America and discovered Native American herbs, which they took back to Europe.

Where do the Herbs We Use Today Come From?

Over time herbs from all over the world have become readily available in the UK. The following are common herbs we use today that originate from outside of Europe:

  • Coriander, dill and fennel come from Mesopotamia (Iraq).
  • Sage, parsley, chives, lemon balm, mint, thyme, and calendula come from Ancient Greece and Roman Italy.
  • Aloe, basil, caraway, cardamom and nutmeg come from India.
  • Ginseng root, caraway, ginko, jasmine and liquorice come from Ancient China.
  • Chickweed, dandelion, milk thistle, St John’s Wort and yarrow, come from Europe.
  • Evening primrose, American ginseng and witch hazel come from America.

Uses of Herbs in History

Herbs haven’t always been used to cook with, and since the beginning of civilisation herbs have had many other uses, for example to aid health and cure disease. The herbs listed below have had many uses. These include:


The Indians believed if a basil leaf was buried with them, it would help their passage to heaven. By contrast, Greeks traditionally disliked basil, and believed scorpions would breed under pots of it growing. The Roman name for basil, Basilescus, referred to the Basilisk, a fire breathing serpent, and eating basil was thought to protect the Romans from the Basilisk. In Italy, basil is regarded as a symbol of love.


In Ancient times gypsies used chives in fortune telling. Having a bunch of chives in your house was thought to ward off disease. In Ancient Rome chives were used to relieve the pain from sunburn or a sore throat, increase blood pressure and encourage urination.


Coriander leaves have been found in Ancient Egyptian tombs from up to 3000 years ago. Roman soldiers used coriander as a meat preservative and to flavour food. It was believed to have a variety of medicinal uses by the American colonists and was thought to relieve stomach pains.


The Ancient Greeks regarded dill as a sign of wealth. During the Middle Ages, if someone believed they had been bewitched, they would drink a mixture containing dill leaves to offer protection from the curse. Burning the leaves was also thought to calm thunderstorms.

Marjoram and Oregano

The Ancient Greeks believed that if you anointed yourself with marjoram, you would dream of your future spouse. They also believed that planting it on a grave would ensure eternal peace and happiness for the dead. During the Middle Ages its leaves were chewed to relieve indigestion, toothache, coughs and rheumatism. Oregano is wild marjoram and has a stronger flavour.


Parsley was used in Roman and Greek times as a flavouring and garnish to cooked dishes. It is used as a symbol of spring and rebirth in the Hebrew celebration of Passover. It was also used in Ancient times as a medicine to help relieve rheumatism, kidney pains and improve general health.


In Ancient Greece, students regularly wore garlands of rosemary braided into their hair or around their necks in order to improve their memory when taking exams. Sir Thomas Moore believed it to be sacred to remembrance and friendship. According to legend, rosemary was used to awaken Sleeping Beauty.


Sage was believed to increase mental acuity in Roman times. It was used in the Middle Ages as a healing herb to treat memory loss, epilepsy and fevers, infection, intestinal problems and eye problems. Charlemagne had it grown in his royal gardens.


The Ancient Sumerians used Thyme as an antiseptic as far back as 3000BC. The early Egyptians used it as part of the mummification process. Greeks used it for massage as an ingredient in bath oils, as incense, and for medicinal purposes. The Ancient Romans would bathe in water scented with thyme before going into battle.

The history of herbs and the cultural background of these plants is fascinating. Next time you use herbs in cooking, remember how important they were to our ancestors and the important role they have played in the evolution of civilisation.

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